05 May 2012

I was studying . . . past imperfect

For some time I have been fascinated by verb tenses. Tenses set time frames about the action. Tenses situate me in history. I have in the past few years become enamored of the work of the late Tony Judt, and so I have recently begun reading his 1998 book Past Imperfect.: French Intellectuals, 1944-56. I am only a bit more mid-way through the text right now, and despite being laid low by the Spring Cold, I have read it continuously during my lucid, waking moments. In his text, Judt explores the responses of the French Intellectuals to the Vichy government, to collaboration and resistance, and to the promise and failure of Stalinist Russia. “It is my contention,” he writes, “that the experience of the thirties—and of defeat, occupation, and resistance—not only provides the content for postwar intellectual activity and concerns but helped shape the language and the assumptions within which that activity and those concerns were cast.” Historicize, historicize, historicize. If the function of the public intellectual is to study what went wrong, then Past Imperfect explores how and why this influential group of men and women defined the very terms with which the issues they explored would be discussed. In this way, these intellectuals could justify their positions and their philosophical stances by defining events only by the definitions they proposed. Judt thinks they were wrong, and the past imperfect tense defines why and how they might have been wrong. If for Merleau-Ponty the situation was everything and everything could only be defined by the present situation, then had the Nazis won the war the ‘justice’ which was practiced after the war on those who had collaborated would have been labeled treason. Simone deBeauvoir would argue that to punish those who had done evil was to confirm that the freely chosen act was crucial and must be treated as real. But, Judt poses, is this position to be called ‘justice?’ The contradictions seemed apparent but the language and constructions developed by the intellectuals permitted them to philosophically explain away the contradictions. The way that these intellectuals dealt with their experiences I think offers an interesting perspective on the present situation of the intellectual in the United States today. But that is a continuing story that concerns how the language may be used to explain the past and create the future even if the language obfuscates, distorts, and even lies! Past imperfect.
The past imperfect in English, Wikipedia notes, expresses an incomplete or unfinished action. The imperfect tense tells us that an action didn’t have a definite beginning or a definite ending. “I worked in the schools last year.” “I hoped to see the Pope before I left Rome.” “I sought justice.” “I was working for a democratic America.” The work of the intellectuals in the years subsequent to the Liberation began before the war had ever begun and continued long after the war had ended. We ought to never to look too immediately for the sources of the present, nor discount too quickly the effects of our actions in the future.
And actually, it is not easy to read about the past imperfect tense in English. But then, Americans are not keen on ambiguity or the past.
I do happily read a great deal, and I hope that every book I read serves as a piece of the great puzzle that I am constructing as some portrayal of my world and my place in it. It will, I am sure, finish at the moment of my death. Tony Judt’s book seems somehow an important piece of the larger puzzle. The names in the book are names of the people whom I have read all of my life; they helped form my stance in the world. Sartre, deBeauvoir, Camus. And there are names in the text with which I was not familiar: Emmanuel Mounier, Robert Brassilach, There are accounts and analyses of events I did not study, especially the show trials in Stalinist Russia and Eastern Europe that consumed the consciousness of these French intellectuals in ways that have shaped contemporary politics and thought. I am a student of language. Knowing about the past imperfect tense seems to me necessary. Reading Judt’s book I feel changed.


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